Honestly, I shouldn’t need to write this, but I do. The recent deluge of media content lionizing motherhood in addition to some psychological battering closer to home means I can’t stay quiet about this any longer.
I’m 41 years old and I don’t want children. I can’t help it and I can’t change it, yet I feel under constant social pressure to try. To force myself into a mindset I just don’t have. I’ve spent years looking around my body, around my mind, seeking out that part of me that I’ve been told over and over again must be there somewhere, but it isn’t. The promised craving never arrived, not at 30 or 35 or 40. It’s just not there. Maybe that makes me a broken person. I’ve been told I’m not really human. Defective. Deficient. And selfish, always selfish. As if this were my choice.
Since my late 20s, I’ve had to swallow down hammer after hammer to the heart as each close friend who promised me that they too didn’t want a family slowly succumbed to the lure of parenthood, leaving me emotionally high and dry and ever-increasingly lonely. As the camaraderie of young womanhood is swapped out for the bonds of motherhood, not a thought is spared for those left behind.
This is not something I would have chosen. As a South Asian woman from an abusive home and a lower socio-economic background with an unconventional appearance and strong opinions living in a white environment, I have already had to live my entire life navigating minority space after minority space, pushing back, standing up for myself. Being fucking different. I am sadly all too familiar with the nightmarish reality of falling unintentionally outside the realm of both the Great White Norm and its Brown equivalent, and if I could possibly choose to be what society wants and expects from a woman my age then yes of course I would. I’m tired of fighting.
I miss my friends, but they have gone where I cannot, in good faith, follow. Mostly too, their denouncement of me has been harsh, critical and without understanding. I’m cast off as immature and childish, refusing to accept adult responsibilities and live an adult lifestyle. Of course, having a self-supporting career and owning my own home as a single woman from the age of 29 are not sufficient evidence of adulthood. Instead of being respected as different, I am automatically marked down as lesser.
We live in a world where it’s no longer considered acceptable in progressive circles to judge or exclude people based on their ethnicity or sexual orientation, yet it’s still absolutely fine to shame women for choosing not to be mothers. Childlessness feels like the last bastion of a woman’s life that the world is still not just allowed but encouraged to weigh in on, dividing women into the hallowed halls of motherhood and the scorned shaming-carrying non-mothers. It’s so unfair, so tiring and so fucking cruel.
The English are, by and large, a nation of busybodies. They see absolutely no issue with firing off personal questions straight off the bat. We are indoctrinated into this very early. First it’s ‘what do your parents do?’, then ‘how did you do in your exams?’. Next we’re asked about our own job prospects and relationship status, and each time the question keens with judgement – your answer will pigeon-hole you, there will be whispers behind your back. ‘Do you have children?’ ‘No – why not?’ is still considered completely appropriate conversational fare, and telling someone to mind their own fucking business will have you marked down as a difficult-social-outcast before you can spell judgmental. While, in my experience at least, the majority of Americans are more sensitive and tactful and give far less of a shit about other people’s business, I am still painfully aware of how strange I must seem.
As a woman there is literally nothing I can do in this world that would earn me the approval that giving birth would get me. My extended family, who look down on everything I’ve ever done with my life and think my career is a joke would suddenly hold me in all esteem they have denied me through every educational and occupational milestone should I suddenly announce a pregnancy. How in the fuck do you think that makes me feel?
There is no community for women who don’t want children. No Mumsnet for the childfree. No safe space, no support network to replace the friendships and intimacy we’ve lost to other people’s motherhood, and most of all no understanding that this may be something that is actually out of our hands. We don’t choose the things we care about in life, or the things we’re good at. As people we are all different, but when it comes to motherhood that established logic flies out of the window. Of course all women must want to be mothers because anything else is unnatural.
And yes yes I know this isn’t just targeted at me. Julia Gillard and the empty fucking fruit bowl. Theresa May. Kamala Harris. All shamed by the media for their failure to procreate. If you don’t give birth what can you possibly know about running a country? Or anything at all for that matter? Unless you’re a man of course. Because while fatherhood bestows its own form of inclusion and respectability, it isn’t considered the holy grail of male experience in the way that motherhood is revered to the point of sainthood. Of course not, men are too busy running the world, but that’s a rant for another day.
In this sliver of a minority, everyone has different reasons for how they feel. Mine seem to be a mix of nature and nurture, not that I should need to justify them – but of course I do. Growing up in an abusive home meant that I have no first-hand experience of how to parent properly. Seeing my elder sibling become a parent very young and struggle horribly, steeped in misery, poverty and often unable to cope, did not sell me on motherhood either. But ultimately the buck stops with me. I don’t relate to children. Frankly, I don’t really understand most of them. Even when I was one myself I found them confusing-their silliness, the constant questions, the toilet humour, the incessant noise. I grew up with my head in a book, all my Lego pieces in the correct segments of the box and a strong desire to be an adult as soon as humanly possible. I didn’t play mummies and daddies. I didn’t have a doll I pretended was my baby, and at no point growing up did I ever dream of having children of my own. I just didn’t, even when I had to pretend to ex-boyfriends that I did. I guess I was always unnatural.
As someone who has never had the luxury of a close female relative in their life who wasn’t an abuser, my female friendships have been everything to me, possibly too much, but unfortunately I’m not able to change the circumstances I was born into. I’ve been a true, loyal friend, and valued my friendships highly, always making time, providing support and being inclusive. I’ve never neglected my friends because I’ve been in a relationship, and going through the process over and over again of being unceremoniously let go because I’m not joining the great wave towards motherhood feels like I’m being stripped down to my bare bones. With no immediate close family there is no one to fill the spaces left empty. I often go for days without speaking in real life to anyone except my husband. The loneliness is as crippling as the judgement. Knowing this is my life now can leave me in an unending fog of despair. This is the cost of being true to myself.
So what should I do? Fake it and bring a child into the world that would, frankly, be unwanted, resented, poorly parented and most likely hideously unhappy just to gain the respect of my peers? Or stick to my guns and soldierly through life as a second-class citizen, denied the privileges offered up so eagerly to women willing to give birth? When you grow up being abused, you develop a keen sense of what a parent should not be, and selfishness is pretty high up there. What more selfish thing in the world could there be than having a child I don’t really want just so that I can fit in with everyone else my age? As a mother, I’d already have failed at the first hurdle.
Over and over I’m told what an amazing life-changing experience motherhood is, how I’ll feel different when they’re mine. No one understands that I don’t want my life changed and I don’t want to feel differently. Not to mention the fact that I don’t fancy taking that kind of gamble – if I don’t feel differently what will happen to the poor kid?
And yet. And yet. It’s hard knowing I will have to go through the rest of my life removed from other women, dismissed and looked down on, alone in my values, my aspirations, my experiences. Always being told ‘you don’t understand-you’re not a mother’. As someone who is intensely social and hates being excluded, my worst nightmare of being on the outside of society looking in has already come true, but there is nothing I can do about it. I see the warmth, the love, the acceptance that the world hands out in unlimited doses to women who become mothers. The indulgent smiles as tube seats are offered up, the conversation openers with strangers, the knowing nods and sympathetic sighs shared between women signaling that yes, they too are part of the great circle of life. They get it. They’re on the same team. There is no team for the rest of us, no special signals, nothing at all. I’m constantly lonely, removed from my peers who keep me at a distance for not speaking the language of motherhood. I feel less relevant, less human, less worthy of the space that I take up, the air that I breathe.
I was always told growing up that ‘if you can’t change the world, change yourself’ and believe me I have tried, but I just can’t. I can’t make myself fit in and be accepted and approved of in the way I want to be without going against my own nature, lying to myself and everyone around me, and potentially damaging another human being whose only reason for existing would be to stem the gaping wound of my loneliness, which let’s face it is a pretty shitty thing to do. So it is a life on the outside of society which I will inevitably slink back to, tail between my legs, clutching my shame at being unable to give the world what it wants. My failure as a woman, as a human, for which I will be eternally punished. Every day feels like another painful exercise in taking my medicine for daring to be different, even though it’s something I have absolutely no control over.
I’m so very very tired, and so agonisingly lonely. But most of you probably think selfish, unnatural women like me deserve that, even if you wouldn’t say it to my face.